Exclusive Interview: Alonzo Mourning’s Triumph Over Kidney Disease
How did you get the nickname “the ultimate warrior?”
Based on my demeanor and determination, over the years the nickname came from the perception that people took from my intense play.
What influence did Coach Pat Riley have on your career with the Heat?
Coach Riley taught me so much more about professionalism and preparation than he taught me about basketball. I knew the game, I had the drive and determination, but what he taught me was how to channel all my energy to be successful. I learned that this is so important to be successful in professional athletics.
What are your views on education and the college athlete? What role did your college experience play in your life and career?
My college coach and mentor, Coach John Thompson, taught me the importance of education first. There are only a small number of NBA players, so if you look at all of the college athletes there are only a few that are going to make it in the NBA; some will go on to play in Europe and most will be champions in other professions. Basketball is not who you are, it is what you do and it is only a temporary part of your life. There will come a time when we all will need to utilize our education.
Should a college athlete stay in school and graduate as opposed to opting out and signing with a pro team?
This is a tough question because I am a bit biased. I did stay in school and I did get my degree and I am thankful for that; however, there are some who have left early or have not even attended college and have done well in the NBA. This is a decision that every person has to make individually, but I personally feel that players will fare better with the college experience (both on and off the court).
When did you find out about your kidney disease, focal glomerulosclerosis?
I found out about my kidney disease because of a mandatory, routine team physical after playing and traveling all summer with the 2000 Olympic Team. I retired for six months to get my mind and body right, and with the help of my Nephrologist, Dr. Gerald Appel, I was able to return to playing in March of the following year. Through the next two seasons, I was monitored closely and ultimately needed my life saving kidney transplant in December of 2003.
The story of you and your donor, your cousin Jason Cooper, is remarkable. How did you connect with your cousin, and what made him decide to donate a kidney?
This story is proof that fate does exist. My aunt (Jason’s grandmother) was sick and in the hospital. Jason went to visit her and, while he was there, my father was also visiting. They happened to see the news conference where I announced that I was going to have to retire from basketball and that I needed a kidney transplant on the TV in the hospital room. He looked at my father and told him that he was living in the New York area, and that if there was anything that he could do to call him, and gave my father his number. I called, met him at the hospital for testing, and he was a match. I had not seen my cousin Jason in over 25 years, and actually tried to talk him out of donating the kidney. I didn’t want him to feel that he had to do this if he had any reservations about it. I owe Jason my life, and now we share a bond that is unexplainable.
Since your new kidney was placed in your lower right abdomen, did you have concerns that it would be vulnerable to the intense physical contact that basketball demands?
At first, yes. However, I was fortunate enough that NIKE made me a one-of-a-kind shield that would protect my new kidney. It was like any of the injuries I had throughout my career; I might have been nervous at first to return to the court, but if I allowed myself to dwell on what could happen, I knew that I would never be able to be the player I wanted and was able to be. I was strong mentally and my body followed.
You helped the Heat win a title in 2006. Was this great achievement a surprise given that you were just two years removed from a kidney transplant?
No, not at all. With all of the hard work that we put in as a team and as an organization it was our time and we seized the moment.
How did the team, coaching staff, and trainers support you?
The organization as a whole helped us be better basketball players by taking care of a lot of the little things that could turn into distractions for us. They allowed us to strictly focus on basketball and, at the same time, helped us develop as people and players. All of the coaches, staff members and trainers were a huge influence in the overall success of the franchise through the years.
What else helped you overcome your personal and professional challenges?
The title of my book says it all: Resilience: Faith, Focus, Triumph. Those qualities, along with the support of my family and friends, allowed me to overcome whatever challenges came my way.
What is your plan for the next five years?
I plan on raising my family and building my foundation. I will also be the Vice President of Player Development for the Miami Heat, and I look forward to developing and contributing to the careers of our young players as we help build the organization.
What advice would you give to young people who want to make sports their career?
It is important to follow your dream because if no one ever did there would never be a dream come true! However, due to the small percentage of athletes who are lucky enough to be a part of professional athletics, it is important to also be committed to education. There are so many different ways to be involved in sports that don’t necessarily include competing, and every position is essential for the success of a team (team doctors, trainers, coaches, etc.). So follow your dreams, but don’t be so focused that you don’t see all the different opportunities available to you along the way! #